The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) repeats one of the most pervasive misconceptions about the current state of the US nuclear arsenal: that it does not compare well with the nuclear arsenals of Russia and China, which are supposedly engaged in nuclear modernization efforts the United States is neglecting.
China is making steady incremental improvements to its nuclear arsenal. But the gap between China and the United States is too wide to argue the United States is lagging behind in any meaningful way. We’ve laid out the details in a new white paper.
A Quick Comparison
China’s nuclear force is much smaller and far less capable than the nuclear force of the United States. Consider the following:
- China’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.
- China has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make only several hundred more. The United States has 4,480 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more.
- China conducted 45 nuclear weapons tests to develop and certify the nuclear warheads it has in its arsenal today. The United States conducted 1,056 nuclear weapons tests.
- China can deliver 75 to 100 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States via ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs and has another 400 nuclear warheads it could put on those ICBMs.
- China does not currently deploy any nuclear weapons aboard ballistic missile submarines, although it could possibly deliver 60 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States aboard the five submarines it will have when the fifth one, currently under construction, is completed. The United States currently deploys about 900 nuclear warheads on ballistic missile submarines and its 248 missiles could carry as many as 2,976.
A Limited Force for a Limited Purpose
Despite the enormous disparity between Chinese and US nuclear forces, the leaked NPR about to be released by the Trump administration claims the United States needs new nuclear weapons because “China is expanding and modernizing its considerable nuclear forces” and because China “pursues entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives.” The new NPR also expresses concern about the “increasing prominence” of nuclear weapons in Chinese defense policy, including possible Chinese first use of nuclear weapons.
There is little evidence China is pursuing “entirely new” nuclear capabilities.
The NPR implies China’s ability to put multiple warheads on its silo-based ICBM, its ability to deploy ballistic missile submarines and its ability to deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft are new. That needs to be considered in context.
China has had the ability to put multiple warheads on its largest silo-based ICBM for decades. It only did so recently with some of its ICBMs, adding a total of 20 warheads. Adding warheads to the rest of these ICBMs would add only another 20 total warheads. So the decision to utilize the capability to add multiple warheads does allow for a modest increase in the number of warheads China can deliver to the United States. But it is a small increase and it is misleading to characterize it as an “entirely new” capability. The United States deployed its first ICBM with multiple warheads in 1970.
The same is true for China’s ballistic missile submarines and bombers. China has had the capability to put nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on submarines for quite a while. It commissioned its first ballistic missile submarine in 1981. It began conducting sea trials of the submarine class it is building today in 2006. It has still not actively deployed them.
China does have a new nuclear capable air-launched cruise missile but US intelligence sources state it does not currently have a nuclear mission.
There is little compellng evidence that nuclear weapons are more prominent in China’s military strategy or that China intends to use nuclear weapons first.
Authoritative Chinese military sources state that the only national security objective China aims to achieve with its small nuclear force is to maintain an ability to retaliate if another state launches a nuclear attack against China first. Those same sources also confirm China remains committed to its longstanding policy of not using nuclear weapons first.
The limited size and capabilities of China’s nuclear force lends credibility to Chinese statements about the limited role of nuclear weapons in its military strategy.
Of course, China has been incrementally improving the quality and increasing the quantity of its nuclear forces since its first test of a nuclear-armed missile in 1966. The pace of these improvements has been steady but slow, especially when compared with the growth of China’s economy. As noted above, after a half-century of continuous incremental “modernization,” China’s nuclear arsenal remains smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.
How to Keep China’s Nuclear Force Small and Limited
President Trump and many members of Congress from both parties seem to believe the United States is in a new nuclear arms race with China. There is no evidence China is engaged in a substantive build-up of its nuclear forces. But even so, for those who are concerned, the best thing the United States can do to win this hypothetical nuclear arms race with China is to limit China’s ability to build new warheads.
China cannot dramatically enlarge its nuclear force without producing more weapons-grade plutonium. And China cannot develop new lighter, variable-yield or low-yield nuclear warheads—like the United States already possesses—without resuming nuclear testing. It stands to reason, therefore, that US and allied officials concerned about the future size and capabilities of China’s nuclear arsenal should take every measure possible to prevent China from producing more fissile material for nuclear weapons and from testing new nuclear warheads.
For the moment, China says it is still willing to negotiate a fissile material control treaty (FMCT) that would verifiably ban new production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
In addition, China stopped nuclear testing in 1996 and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Chinese nuclear arms control experts say their government is still willing to permanently end nuclear testing and ratify the CTBT as soon as the United States does. Entry into force of the CTBT would verifiably ban China from testing new nuclear warheads.
The Trump administration’s plan to develop and deploy new nuclear weapons does nothing to prevent China from expanding its nuclear forces. However, ratifying the CTBT and beginning negotiations on the FMCT would cap the size of China’s nuclear arsenal at its current level. Working towards the entry into force of these two arms control treaties, then, should be the top two priorities for anyone genuinely concerned about the future size and capability of China’s nuclear forces.